Using trade ties to secure doses, Chile moves fast on COVID-19 vaccination drive

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chile is streaking ahead of the rest of Latin America in its campaign to vaccinate its population against the coronavirus, which the Andean country’s leaders hope can help not only beat back the virus but also unite the nation.

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As of Feb. 18, the copper-producing country had given over 2.5 million doses of vaccine, enough for around one shot for 12 in every hundred people, according to Our World in Data. It could fully vaccinate 10% of its population with two doses per person in just over 20 days at its current rate, Reuters data show.

That puts it in the top 10 globally of larger countries and compares to 172 days for Brazil and over 1,000 days for Mexico, which has faced delays in its inoculation program.

Rodrigo Yanez, the vice minister for trade negotiating the deals, said in an interview that Chile had hosted multiple vaccine trials to gain priority for supply, and made use of connections with vaccine-producing trade partners who normally snap up its copper and fresh fruit.

At a soccer stadium-turned vaccine center in La Florida, a working class neighborhood of Chilean capital Santiago, mayor Rodolfo Carter said that the rapid drive could help heal the country after two terrible years when it was rocked first by violent protests and then by the pandemic.

“This global tragedy perhaps gives us the opportunity as Chileans not just to get a shot in the arm but reach out to people and soothe the nation’s soul,” he told Reuters, adding the center was averaging 7,000 people a day.

Just over a year ago, Chile was swept by intense protests against inequality and elitism that left scores dead and injured, billions of dollars in damages to businesses, and a populace deeply divided.

However, despite ongoing tensions, many Chileans are pleased at how fast the country has been to get its vaccination program up and running. On Christmas Eve, it was the first in South America to start inoculations, injecting health workers with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

With the arrival of Sinovac doses, it set up 1,400 mobile clinics around the country at the start of February and by last Thursday had given some 2.57 million vaccinations.

Graphic: Chile's rapid vaccine roll out:

The long thin Andean nation, which has a population of 19 million, has signed supply deals for a total of 34 million doses of two-shot vaccines this year from Pfizer, Sinovac and AstraZeneca. It is awaiting confirmation on a deal with Johnson & Johnson and has signed up for the global vaccine distribution scheme COVAX.

Dr Fernando Leanes, the World Health Organization’s representative in Chile, credited leaders across political, medical and academic spheres with reacting swiftly to shore up vaccines when it became clear competition would be fierce.

All Chileans should feel “proud” that the country was topping world tables with its vaccination drive, said Paula Daza, a health ministry official in President Sebastian Pinera’s government, last week.

“This is the fruit of a lengthy endeavor that started more than a year ago when the president began talks with different countries,” she said.

Reporting by Aislinn Laing and Jorge Vega; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Rosalba O’Brien